One of the least-visited, but most productive kayak fishing routes in the region is just a stone’s throw from Port of the Island and the Tamiami Trail–but deep in the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve never encountered another angler on this trip, even though I rate it as having the best potential for a big snook or red of any I have sampled hereabouts. It begins inauspiciously in a little road-side lagoon off the Tamiami Trail on what’s marked as Canoe Route #4 by the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge folk, then follows a narrow, shallow little creek snaking its way south through a tight corridor of sawgrass into a pristine, hidden wilderness.
In stark contrast to the Port of the Islands and its sister Golden Gates Estates developments to the east, poster children for environmentally rapacious Florida-style real estate projects of the 1970s, this route wanders through a beautiful untouched haven for egrets, spoonbills, ducks, and my favorite Florida bird, the graceful swallow-tailed kite. The channels it follows and shallow ponds it flows through are loaded with mullet and other bait fish, attracting snook and reds that grow fat on the bounty. Tarpon, bass, cichlids, jacks, and snapper also are on the menu for anglers who probe the water carefully.
What do modern product marketing, Collier County, Florida, and the Barron River here in the Everglades have in common?? They all owe it to Barron Collier, a wealthy Yankee who made a gigantic fortune back at the turn of the 19th Century with his
modest little brainchild: Putting ads in New York street cars to woo a captive audience. He was only 19 years old when he started his business!!
His namesake Barron River sidles alongside of Everglades City, providing a deep channel into the Ten Thousand Islands of the Gulf of Mexico. Upstream, it provides access to some untrammeled wilderness and good fishing for the adventurous kayak angler.
Back around the late 1880s, the Everglades were a true backwater—the few hearty locals made a living through agriculture (grapefruits, tomatoes), hunting, fishing, and skullduggery. The nearest sheriff being several days away by boat in Key West, it was home to outlaws, n’er do wells, and other assorted misfits as documented in Peter Matthiessen’s fascinating epic, Killing Mr. Watson. An early account proclaimed seven unwritten rules of that wild country:
Suspect every man.
Ask no questions.
Settle your own quarrels.
Never steal from an Islander.
Stick by him, even if you do not know him.
Shoot quick, when your secret is in danger.
Cover your kill.
The area’s bountiful sunshine and fish and game were discovered by wealthy northerners seeking to escape frigid winters and sportsmen, beginning the transition to a tourist destination. Collier came visiting the area at the invitation of one of his rich buddies, and like many Yankees to follow, he got “sand in his shoes.” Soon he had purchased almost a million acres stretching south from Fort Myers, including most of the land in a little village called Everglade, which he promptly renamed Everglades. The river that served Everglades was originally
called Potato Creek for the potatoes planted there by the Seminole Indians. It had been renamed the Allen River after a local pioneering settler. It was promptly renamed the Barron River. Collier started promoting agriculture and development in the area, promising the state legislature he would help finish construction of the Tamiami Trail highway from Tampa to Miam–IF they would slice off a big chunk of Lee County (Ft. Myers) and create Collier County with Everglades as the new county seat. DEAL!!
He delivered on his promise to speed up work on the road that would finally link the west and east coasts of Florida–a startling engineering and construction feat using giant dredges to plow through the swampy Everglades muck and then blasting through hard limestone with 2.5 million sticks of dynamite. The official opening day was April 26th, 1928. As he financed building of the highway, Collier also turned Everglades City, the nerve center for construction, into a model corporate town complete with wide boulevards, traffic circles, and a full array of handsome community buildings like a bank, cleaners, grocery store, barbershop, church, school, and hotel. Everglades City had its own electric streetcar, the only one south of Tampa. He was way ahead of his time in many ways.
Today, the two-lane Tamiami Trail has ceded its importance to Interstate 75 twenty miles to the north, known as Alligator Alley. Everglades City has faded into a shadow of its former glory, losing its status as county seat to Naples thanks to Hurricane Donna in 1960 that flooded the town to a depth of eight feet, inundated the county courthouse, wiped out hundreds of houses, and damaged over a thousand more. The town now sports a modest permanent population of about 500 people. But the good news is the fishing is still terrific for anglers who descend on the area, especially on weekends. Even better, most of them overlook the Barron River, right on the town’s doorstep, where feisty tarpon, snook, and redfish abound. Better yet, a substantial amount of the river, especially what I call the North Fork, is accessible only by kayak. Three of my favorite trips on the Barron River—the North Fork, the Main Stem, and the South Branch—follow.
“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than an oyster.” –David Hume
I’m always looking for a new kayak fishing day trip that doesn’t require a Herculean paddling effort, one that I can feature in the Everglades kayak fishing guide I’m working on. So sitting comfortably on the lounge chair on my sun deck on late afternoon, margarita in hand, I conducted a virtual tour on my cell phone GPS app and spotted an intriguing area I had never explored. Just northwest of the national park headquarters in Everglades City lies a broken jumble of mangrove islands and oyster beds in Chokoloskee Bay that looked promising and whetted my appetite.
“I, I wish you could swim…Like the dolphins….Like the dolphins swim
We can be heroes just for one day…We can be us just for one day”
The heavy rain continues in the Everglades in January, courtesy of El Niño. Winter is usually the dry season here, when at times the Everglades actually burn just like a prairie. And with the rain, comes a slug of freshwater pouring out of The Swamp, chasing the snook, redfish, tarpon and other of my favorite quarry–that seek refuge in the upcountry from cold temperatures–back into the Gulf and its saltwater. So, I readjusted my sights and headed out into the Ten Thousand Islands, just offshore of my new home in Chokoloskee, to see if I can change my luck. And boy, did I!